Some of these women you’ve probably heard of, but others might be new names to your ears. I had only seen pictures of a few in passing, or heard their names here and there, but I can safely say that, after researching this article, I won’t ever forget any of them.
They’re women who were pioneers, who tossed societal conventions out the window, who stood up for the rights of women, LGBT people, and other oppressed groups, or who just generally did not give two shits what they were supposed to be doing. Instead, they stayed focused on the paths they knew in their hearts they were meant to follow.
Their contributions are invaluable to each and every lady alive today, so read up, and take a moment to say thank you for all of the rights and opportunities you now have because of their determination and sacrifices.
#12. Maud Stevens Wagner
Tattoos are considered controversial and even unladylike in our culture still today – but a female tattoo artist in 1900? Completely unheard of…until Maud Stevens Wagner leapt onto the scene. And as you can see from the above photograph, she not only gave them, she had them. LOTS of them.
Maud was making her living as an acrobat, aerialist, and contortionist at the Saint Louis World’s Fair when she met Gus Wagner, a contemporary tattoo artist who worked by hand with the stick-and-poke method, rather than using a machine. He not only tattooed Maud (eventually from head-to-toe), but taught her the craft, making Wagner the first woman on record to learn to do it herself.
The history of tattooed women is complicated and, in the case of Native Americans, pervasively racist. At first, they were nothing but sideshow attractions, put on display as objects of freakish desire or, in the case of Native women, primitivism. As the years have passed and more and more women followed in Maud’s footsteps, tattooed ladies have gone through a slow metamorphosis to become not only fairly normal, but sexualized.
Maud’s legacy is one of female independence and entrepreneurship that led to the scads of female tattoo artists today. Her entire life, the tattoo culture was made up mostly of men – getting and giving them – but she obviously could not have cared less about convention.
More power to her and, by proxy, to us.
Favorite Quote: I couldn’t find any recorded, but I think her ink speaks for itself.
#11. Emmeline Pankhurst
Americans may not have heard of her, but without Emmeline Pankhurst and her willingness to tear shit up, there’s a good chance women still wouldn’t have the right to vote.
Born Emmeline Goulden, she was the eldest of 10 children born to parents who were active in both the abolitionist and suffrage movements in England. Even so, she wasn’t a fan of the fact that her parents prioritized her brothers’ education before hers – which was perhaps as influential to her as her first suffrage meeting at age 14.
In 1879, after completing her education, she met and married Richard Pankhurst, a man 24 years her senior but with like political views. Together, they remained active in politics while raising 5 children.
In 1903 she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a group focused specifically on getting the right to vote. The group was viewed as militant in their tactics, which escalated quickly to include window breaking, vandalism, and arson. The resulting arrests led to hunger strikes and forcible feeding, among other distressing treatment of the women working to secure the right to vote in England.
In 1918, some women were granted the right to vote, and later that same year, they received the right to be elected to Parliament. Emmeline died young in 1928, only 69 years old. She missed seeing the fruits of her labor come to be by 3 weeks – British Parliament granted the right to vote to ALL women about 3 weeks after she died.
Favorite Quote: “Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.”
#10. Carrie Chapman Catt
Move over, Susan B. Anthony – Carrie Chapman Catt is the lady who came up with the “winning plan” to pass the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote in the USA. Catt worked as a teacher to pay her own way through college before taking work as a journalist, then taking over the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900. She was in and out of public life for several years due to her first and second husbands’ failing health, but returned with a vengeance in 1915 after being widowed a second time.
As she worked on the plan that would eventually see the 19th amendment passed, she presciently established the League of Women Voters, so that women would be ready to exercise their new rights once the bill was passed.
Catt, a staunch pacifist her entire life, remained active in women’s rights, and after the 19th Amendment passed, she went abroad to help women in other countries with their own struggles.
Favorite Quote: “No written law has ever been more binding than unwritten custom supported by popular opinion.”
#9. Simone Segouin
What were you doing when you were 18 years old? No matter whether you had your shit together or not, I’m guessing you weren’t running around occupied France capturing Nazi soldiers.
But that’s exactly what young Simone Segouin was up to in the summer of 1944. Maybe it wasn’t such a stretch for her, being born into a farming family with three brothers, to join the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans – a combat group of militant communists and French nationalists – at such a tender age. Maybe.
Or maybe she was just that awesome.
In an attempt to protect her family in the case of her capture, she took on the nom de plume of Nicole Minet, with papers claiming she hailed from Dunkirk. The fact that the port had been bombed early on made it hard for anyone asking to verify details, which made it the perfect cover.
“Nicole” proved to be a quick study at spying and sabotage, graduating quickly from ferrying messages to weapons use, blowing up bridges, and assisting in the capture of German soldiers. Soon after, she met and fell in love with Roland Boursier, who happened to be in command of the Thivars Operation (which was in her hometown) and recruited her help.
She was instrumental in the liberation of Chartres before marching on to Paris with France’s 2nd Armoured division. During her time serving her country, she killed two Germans and assisted in capturing 25 more.
After the war, France awarded her the Croix de Guerre, and she was promoted to lieutenant. Considering that women made up 10% of the Resistance fighters, their success and drive inspired a change in the way women were treated in France – in fact, their efforts directly led France to allow women the vote in 1945.
Simone spent the rest of her life as a pediatric nurse in the hometown she helped save, where a street is named after her. She’s been described as “one of the purest fighters of heroic French Resistance who prepared the way for the Liberation.”
High praise for a country girl who just happened to have nerves of steel and a steady trigger finger. She might be my new hero.
Favorite Quote: “I was a resistance fighter, that’s all. If I had to do it all again, I would, because I don’t regret anything.”
#8. Harriet Tubman
Yes, she was a determined Abolitionist and an integral part of the Underground Railroad, but did you know that she was a Union spy during the Civil War? Yeah, neither did I.
In 1863, she worked with Colonel James Montgomery to free the slaves from the rice plantations lining the Combahee River in South Carolina, setting fire to buildings and destroying bridges in the process.
Tubman and the other spies risked their lives to return to Confederate territory, and once there, they learned of the opposing army’s plan and sent dispatches back North. Since she was a known abolitionist, it would have taken double the courage for Harriet to return South time and time again. As former Salisbury University professor Claire Small put it, “she wanted to be free, she wanted other people to be free. Otherwise she would not have risked her life.”
She’s an American hero, one who will soon take her place front and center on the $20. Don’t feel too sorry for Andrew Jackson, though, since he was a staunch hater of the idea of paper money during his lifetime.
Favorite Quote: “I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.
#7. Amelia Earhart
No article about badass women would be complete without Amelia Earhart. There’s no better example of a woman who stepped into a man’s world without apology, and quickly determined that she would do something no man had done before – in this case, fly across the oceans.
Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas, and was just the 16th woman in the United States to be issued a pilot’s license. She became the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, and she later became the first person ever to fly over both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – and then, in 1937, she disappeared.
As a girl, she excelled in both science and sports, and some believe that her father’s inability to shake his alcoholism and support his family may have led to her independent tendencies. If he wasn’t going to help, she needed to be able to take care of herself.
While volunteering as a nurse with the Red Cross in Toronto during WWI, Amelia became enamored with watching the Royal Flying Corps practice at a nearby airfield. Her fascination with planes and flying continued after she relocated to California, and a plane ride at the Long Beach air show in 1920 cemented her dream – she had to learn how to fly. In order to make that dream a reality she worked as a photographer, a truck driver, and more, before finally earning enough to take lessons from pioneer female pilot Anita “Neta” Snook.
Nothing mattered to Amelia except flying, and she spent much of her time at the airfield. She cropped her hair short and even slept in her leather aviator’s jacket in order to make it appear more worn-in. In her second-hand Kinner Airster biplane, nicknamed “The Canary” due to its bright yellow paint, she flew to 14,000 feet – the altitude record for a female pilot at that time (1921).
The first time she crossed the Atlantic was as a passenger, since the men of the day had decided it was too dangerous an endeavor for a woman to undertake alone. Earhart wasn’t impressed after making the return trip, commenting that she “was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes …maybe someday I’ll try it alone.”
She did just that, of course, taking off on the morning of May 20, 1932. She intended to fly to Paris, mimicking Charles Lindbergh’s flight, but mechanical difficulties forced her to put down in Ireland. Which still, of course, made her the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic alone. A later flight from Honolulu to Oakland, made her the first pilot, male or female, to also cross the Pacific.
Earhart disappeared in 1937, and it has recently come to light that her remains may have been found on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean.
As far as her personal life, Earhart became a celebrity after her first passenger trip across the ocean, and she strove to use her influence to set an example of female courage, intelligence, and self-reliance, hoping that her feats could help beat back the negative stereotypes about women, opening doors for them in every field.
I think, all of these years later, we can all agree that her courage, smarts, determination, and willingness to ignore the so-called limitations of the day managed to do just that.
Favorite Quote: “Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done.”